PHILADELPHIA (AP) — When DeMarco Murray traded the blue star on his helmet for silver and white wings, the balance of power in the NFC East shifted from the Dallas Cowboys to the Philadelphia Eagles.
That might be the difference in a division that’s had four different champions in the past four years.
Last season, Murray helped the Cowboys end a string of mediocre seasons with a record-setting performance that catapulted Dallas to 12 wins and its first division crown in five years.
But the All-Pro running back got a better free-agent offer from Philadelphia, where Chip Kelly overhauled the roster following a 10-win season that wasn’t good enough for a playoff spot.
Murray is one of five new starters on an offense that has thrived since Kelly’s arrival in 2013. He joins new quarterback and former college roommate Sam Bradford, who looked sharp in limited preseason action.
While the Cowboys still have Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and perhaps the best offensive line in the league, they’ll miss Murray’s franchise-record 1,845 yards rushing.
“We don’t say let’s take this player over that player because it’s going to make that team weaker,” Kelly said. “I know Dallas is going to be a tough opponent when we play them this year.”
Murray doesn’t have to be a workhorse in Philadelphia. The Eagles also signed former Pro Bowl back Ryan Mathews and they have Darren Sproles.
Dallas is counting on Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle to replace Murray’s 497 carries.
“I think we’ll be just fine,” Randle said.
The Cowboys are aiming to become the first repeat champions in the East since the Eagles won four titles in a row from 2001-04.
The New York Giants and Washington Redskins won’t be a threat to knock them off.
Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and the offense will score points, but defense is the big question for New York. The Redskins are a daily soap opera making headlines for the wrong reasons.
Here are a few things to know about the NFC East:
CHIP’S IN CHARGE: Kelly gained control of personnel moves and made drastic changes. Gone are LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles, Jeremy Maclin, Evan Mathis, Todd Herremans, Trent Cole, Cary Williams and other players who helped the Eagles win 20 games in Kelly’s first two seasons. Bradford came over from St. Louis and appears healthy after two ACL operations on the same knee forced him to miss the past 25 games. He led the offense to a touchdown in each of his four series in two preseason games.
The biggest improvement for Philadelphia is the defense. Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond bolster a secondary that was awful the past two seasons, and Kiko Alonso fortifies a solid front seven.
GETTING DEFENSIVE: Murray’s success last season wasn’t the only reason the Cowboys beat out Philadelphia in the standings. A vastly improved defense led by coordinator Rod Marinelli was a major factor. The addition of DE Greg Hardy should help once he’s reinstated after serving a four-game suspension. And linebacker Sean Lee is back from a knee injury. But cornerback Orlando Scandrick (knee) is lost for the season, and linebacker Rolando McClain is suspended for four games. With Murray gone, the offense might have to rely more on Romo’s arm. The 35-year-old QB still seems capable of carrying the load. He bounced back from back surgery and had an outstanding season in 2014, and now seems healthier than he’s been in years.
SPAGS RETURNS: The most important offseason move the Giants made was hiring defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who was in charge when Big Blue beat Tom Brady and the undefeated Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl. Spagnuolo has a tough task ahead with a depleted unit. End Jason Pierre-Paul’s status is uncertain, LB Jon Beason is injured again, and safeties Bennett Jackson, Mykkele Thompson and Justin Currie were lost for the season. Manning and Co. might have to win shootouts if the defense doesn’t improve drastically. Rueben Randle filled in nicely after Victor Cruz was injured to give Manning a formidable 1-2 punch at wideout.
IN KIRK THEY TRUST: Kirk Cousins beat out Robert Griffin III for the starting QB job, a move that could signal the end of RG3’s tumultuous tenure in Washington. The 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year has been plagued by injuries since leading the Redskins to a division title and tearing knee ligaments in a playoff loss in January 2013. Cousins is 2-7 as a starter in three seasons playing behind Griffin. He’ll probably throw a lot to DeSean Jackson and hand off even more to Alfred Morris. The Redskins lost tight ends Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen for the season. The defense also suffered blows in the preseason with season-ending injuries to linebackers Junior Galette and Adam Hayward.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Redskins.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org
Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_RobMaaddi